Community Disciplines: Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Part 2

Bonhoeffer writes,

We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does that mean?

It means, first, that a Christian needs others for the sake of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that from eternity we have been chosen in Jesus Christ, accepted in time, and united for eternity.

(p. 31). Our fellowship — our community — is defined not by denominational tags, our history of division, or some “identity” other than our identity in Jesus Christ. All else is idolatry. The only identity that matters is that we are together in Jesus Christ. Period.

When we claim some other identity, we give our allegiance to something other than our Savior. That is, by definition, idolatry and false religion. Those of us who struggle in that area should be scared. It’s a scary place to be — because to build our Christian communiy on any other identity is to declare Jesus insufficient. It’s what Paul, in Galatians, calls “a different gospel.”

(Gal 1:6-9 ESV)  6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–  7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

We define the gospel we obey by whom we fellowship — that is, whom we treat as fellow Christians. Our community is either built on our identity as believers in Jesus or on something else. And only faith in Jesus saves.

(Gal 5:6 ESV)  6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Bonhoeffer explains,

First, Christians are persons who no longer seek their salvation, their deliverance, their justification in themselves, but in Jesus Christ alone. They know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them guilty, even when they feel nothing of their own guilt, and that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them free and righteous, even when they feel nothing of their own righteousness. Christians no longer live by their own resources, by accusing themselves and justifying themselves, but by God’s accusation and God’s justification. They live entirely by God’s Word pronounced on them, in faithful submission to God’s judgment, whether it declares them guilty or righteous.

(p. 31). You see, when we truly understand that we are saved by grace, through faith, then we truly understand that we just, plain don’t deserve our salvation. And if we don’t deserve it, the fact that the guy sitting next to me doesn’t deserve his salvation doesn’t upset me, because I don’t deserve to be here either. After all, we’re all saved by grace.

This allows us to be humble enough to recognize that those who dare disagree with us over this or that — and yet remain in genuine faith in Jesus — aren’t less deserving of salvation than us.

The discriminator, therefore, isn’t our purity or our holiness or our righteousness or our education or our knowledge of the Bible or our pattern of worship or our pattern of church organization – but our faith in Jesus. And that changes everything.

Of course, “faith” includes faithfulness to Jesus as well as belief in who he is. But faithfulness is a state of the heart, not a level of intellectual attainment. If we disagree about the age of the earth or the proper use of the church treasury or what is authorized in worship, we disagree in faith, in penitence. We are both desperately trying to be obedient. We both submit to God’s word as best we can. We both have faith. And therefore we are both accepted by God, who accepts our differing worship because he accepts our similar hearts.

We need Christian community because we struggle to sort it all out on our own –

God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians, in the mouths of human beings. Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves without cheating themselves out of the truth. They need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation. They need them solely for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their brothers and sisters are sure.

(p. 32). I don’t go to church to be affirmed in what I already believe. I go to be brought closer to Jesus, to the true gospel, to a deeper, richer understanding. In going, I admit that I need to go, not to be with other perfect people, but to hear the Word again proclaimed that I might be measured by it, confess my failings, and be changed for the better. You see, I should go in humility or not at all.

If I go expecting to be the expert, the master of God’s word, then I have no chance to be bettered. I have no hope of improvement. And I make myself the standard rather than the word of God. It’s not a good place to be.

Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. That not only is true at the beginning, as if in the course of time something else were to be added to our community, but also remains so for all the future and into all eternity. I have community with others and will continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us will recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is alive between us.

(p. 34). Imagine that. The more we learn about Jesus, the longer we walk with him together — as a church — the less anything else should matter. If we grow in faith, not arrogance, then as our faith grows, we cling ever more to Jesus and even less to our own righteousness. Our humility deepens as we learn more and more about ourselves and Jesus.

We grow more like Jesus, and do indeed become more righteous, but our confidence and assurance is less and less on our greater and greater righteousness and more and more on Jesus. We can never, ever outgrow grace. We never earn any of it, and as we submit more and more to that reality, we find it easier to accept others.

Sadly, though, our churches have a way of teaching our members to feel more and more entitled as time goes on. Our members build their confidence more and more on an identity other than Jesus. We become denominationalized. We no longer feel that faith in Jesus is enough.

All those years of loyalty to a human institution — a denomination — makes us feel an allegiance to ideas and theories and doctrines rather than the person Jesus. Indeed, our denominational identity becomes a source of pride because we’ve been taught we’re holier than the others, care more about truth than the others, love Jesus more than the others. And these are lies. These are idols.

You see, these kind of ideas are the exact opposite of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. We want to earn our salvation — and we want to look down on others. We wear our humility uncomfortably. We’d rather be better, we’d rather be smarter, we’d rather be able to look down our noses at those other churches with their big buildings and big budgets.

And it’s wicked. Does that mean we’re wrong? Or right? No, it means that salvation is based on faith in Jesus — and as Paul wrote –

(Rom 1:17 NIV)  For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed–a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

We are good with our walk with Jesus beginning with faith, but we aren’t willing to admit that it’s faith all the way to the end — because that seems too gracious, too generous, too good to be true. Therefore, we add requirements and rules. After all, Christians are supposed to obey, right?

And, yes, Christians are supposed to obey. Absolutely. But Christianity is based on faith not works, and obedience is the response to salvation and not the path to salvation. It’s the necessary result of salvation.

You see, those with faith have transformed, penitent hearts that wish to obey. And God judges our hearts, not the perfection of our doctrine. Thus, even though we understand imperfectly and disagree among ourselves, God judges our hearts and our passions, and overlooks our intellectual and moral failings. This is the joy of grace.

But there are boundaries. And one of them is that we must extend to others the same grace we accept for ourselves. And so when we turn the real requirement of repentance into insistence on conformity to a body of inferences, we make faith into works, and we destroy God’s grace, destroy the foundation of Christian community, create division upon division, learn to boast in ourselves – and teach a different gospel.

No longer do we allow God to judge hearts. We insist that he judge performance — but only those elements of performance in which we believe we excel! Not personal evangelism (covered by grace), not concern for the poor (covered by grace), not love for our neighbors (covered by grace), but the order of worship and the pattern of church organization (no grace needed here).

And thus we invent a human religion based on works for those carefully selected works where we feel perfected — as though the religion of Jesus Christ were not good enough because it doesn’t damn those we wish to see damned.

Avatar of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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14 Responses to Community Disciplines: Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Part 2

  1. Royce Ogle says:

    I really like this but some of your guests will be certain it’s heresy. Faith in Christ alone? A righteousness not given because of your obedience?

    The gospel of Christ is still offensive to those who think they can be good enough. However, the gospel of the church of Christ, polishes the human ego, puts others down, and suits them well.

  2. Pastor Mike says:

    This one of those times when I wish I knew how to shout, “Amen!” with the freedom of some of my more demonstrative brothers and sisters. I weep when I see the numbers of ways we have divided the Body of Christ.

  3. Pastor Mike says:

    “Sadly, though, our churches have a way of teaching our members to feel more and more entitled as time goes on. Our members build their confidence more and more on an identity other than Jesus. We become denominationalized. We no longer feel that faith in Jesus is enough.”

    This would seem to answer a question that has burned in my mind since you asked it in Tulsa and reported it here on your blog. I don’t remember the the question exactly, but the essence of it was, “What are we doing wrong?” As I recall it, you were comparing two churches and asking which is more likely to grow, the new church with money problems or the established church with a solid base of tithers for financial support.

  4. Norton says:

    Wow! That crunched toes of all sizes and shapes. It still hurts.

  5. Jerry says:

    But there are boundaries. And one of them is that we must extend to others the same grace we accept for ourselves.

    Jas 2:13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

    Matt 5:7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

    Matt 7:1- 5 Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

    The more we pay attention to what Jesus and His spokesmen said, the more mercy we will show to others. To do otherwise, brings us under the same standards of judgment we use – and takes us away from grace, without which we are separated from Christ who is our Lord and King.

  6. Ray Downen says:

    While it’s grand to hear such compelling calls to unity in Jesus, I fear that any teaching of salvation by faith alone will ultimately result in lack of saving work on the part of some. Paul warns that only we who obey the gospel will be saved. This is not salvation by faith alone. Does that negate salvation by grace through faith? No. It makes clear however that there’s more to serving Jesus than just thinking well or even just speaking well. Whatever the gospel requires of us is essential. The very first requirement we note in Acts is that sinners MUST repent and be baptized into Christ. Some want to nullify that requirement in favor of just praying or just this or just that. But the word is clear. In order to be joined with Jesus sinners MUST be born again of water and spirit. Minus the new birth Peter describes in Acts 2:38, sinners are headed for Hell. Some of us are promising salvation without obeying the gospel. All such promises are hollow and misleading.

  7. laymond says:

    Amen Ray

    What was it Paul said he preached after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus .
    Act 26:20 But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and [then] to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.
    “do works meet for repentance”

  8. joe baggett says:

    The tendency of any religion is control. A life together requires people to release control. If you are deciding who gets grace and who doesn’t then you may ask yourself what is pure and undefiled religion? Just a hint it is not perfect doctrine. Once that is realized then community built on Christ can flourish. Because Christ came to save the world not to condemn it.

  9. laymond says:

    Mat 16:27 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.

    2Ti 3:16 All scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
    2Ti 3:17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
    NIV – 2Ti 3:17 – so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
    Hummm, don’t you think it strange that Paul would say something like that.
    If Jesus had already done all the work.?
    There are many strange things written in the bible, huh.?
    Jam 2:14 What [doth it] profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
    Jam 2:17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
    Jam 2:18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
    Jam 2:20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

    I’m just asking , can one be saved by a “dead faith” ?

  10. Alabama John says:

    You can do all the works without faith and have faith that does no works.
    Both are wrong.

    The point is I have never known anyone that had the faith that didn’t because of that faith do works.

    It is just that they didn’t think the works came first, but that faith did and that faith caused the works to want to be done.

    Like Paul, which came first with him? He believed on the road, got faith of the utmost kind, from actual contact, and that caused him to do the works.

  11. Doug says:

    Wow! Now you works guys want to play whack-a-mole on this thread? I decline… “Why they left Chapter 4, Part 3″ has been entirely enough for me.

  12. laymond says:

    Doug, it seems that is what this post is about, did you read the post?

    “(p. 31). You see, when we truly understand that we are saved by grace, through faith, then we truly understand that we just, plain don’t deserve our salvation. And if we don’t deserve it, the fact that the guy sitting next to me doesn’t deserve his salvation doesn’t upset me, because I don’t deserve to be here either. After all, we’re all saved by grace.”

  13. Ray said, “While it’s grand to hear such compelling calls to unity in Jesus, I fear that any teaching of salvation by faith alone will ultimately result in lack of saving work on the part of some. ”
    >>>
    First, I appreciate Ray’s candor in admitting to this idea of “saving work”. Many of his compatriots believe in this, but they find too much contradictory scripture to comfortably admit this belief, so they crawfish and parse the language when challenged. Not Ray. Behold an Israelite in whom is no guile.

    Second, I refer again to Paul’s treatise in Romans 6. He was not afraid that grace would lead to license, although he knew it could be offered as an excuse for just that. He stuck firmly with what Jesus did and who we are in Him; he did not backpedal into some safer position that would keep those libertines from the wrong path at the expense of the purity of the Gospel.

    I tell my children, “I love you!” Might they take that to mean I won’t discipline them, or that I will tolerate bad behavior? They could, I guess. So, knowing this, do I change my tune? Do I say, “I really like you when you behave yourself.” Not me. I’ll continue to say what is true, not what best controls the carnal impulses of the immature.

  14. Todd Collier says:

    Historical note for those who are already hyperventilating over the same “dead faith” question that has been raised in every grace post for a while now:

    DB was certainly not a “faith only” kind of guy. This man was literally “faithful unto death” and he saw and called out as heretics any who tried to make peace between Christ and the world – especially the Nazi’s. He extended fellowship over a wide spectrum of denominational differences but with-held fellowship from those who would compromise on love for others.

    He did not believe his “righteous works” gained him anything. He was “fully justified by grace” and yet he saw his good works as the inevitable outcome of that grace. He saw those who were just like the world as having bought into a cheap or counterfeit grace. To his way of thinking the heresy of “cheap grace” had poisoned the German Church making it immune to the call of the cross. “Discipleship” was an attempt to restore an awareness of true grace centered discipleship while “Life Together” was an attempt to resurrect the community grace called into being.

    Please, before we descend into another pointless faith vs works dead horse beater just read this man’s works and Mataxis’s biography of him and realize those debates are without relevance when discussing Bonhoeffer’s life and teaching.

    No dead faith here, just a witness to grace who yet lives even though he died.

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